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Thu, Jul 27, 2000 - Page 3 News List

Workplace safety faulted in tragedy

RESPONSIBILITY Groups for victims of occupational injuries said Saturday's tragedy was another case of poor working conditions and administrative carelessness

By Irene Lin  /  STAFF REPORTER

Prosecutors from the Chiayi District Prosecutors' Office inspect the Pachang Creek construction site yesterday to clarify whether the contractor bears responsibility for the deaths of four workers on Saturday.

PHOTO: HSIEH YIN-CHUNG, LIBERTY TIMES

The Pachang Creek (八掌溪) incident, which claimed the lives of four while working on a riverbed construction project last Saturday, could have been avoided had the workers' employers followed through on workplace safety regulations, groups for victims of occupational injuries said yesterday.

Media reports over the past three days have overwhelmingly focused on the government's responsibility in the matter, but the occupational injury victims' groups believe the accident is a reflection of long-existing shortcomings in workplace safety.

"This incident could have been avoided, just as any other occupational injury," said Ku Yu-ling (顧玉玲), secretary-general of the Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Accidents and Diseases (工作傷害受害人協會).

"The rapidly rising torrent was said to have caused the accident, but it can't explain everything. I think it's natural for everyone to ask `Could this have been avoided?'" Ku said.

"There must be some who are responsible for ensuring safety at the workplace. The contractor, for sure, has direct responsibilities, but I suspect he has very little money to compensate families of the dead workers," Ku said.

"This is not an isolated case at all. Such things happen in Taiwan from time to time where workers die of occupational injuries. It's just that the other cases haven't grabbed media and public attention," Ku said.

The four workers were employed by the Yung-chiu Construction Company (永久營造公司), contracted to repair embankments and the riverbed of the Pachang Creek at a price of over NT$7.6 million, to be paid by the Ministry of Economic Affairs' Water Conservancy Agency

The projects, begun in May this year and to be completed by August, are deemed as urgent for the safety of residents living downstream. Pachang Creek has its source on Alishan and flows through Chaiyi County and Tainan County.

To meet the deadline, the projects have been carried out during the rainy season, a risky move.

"They worked under pretty risky conditions. Ten years ago, we had a staff member who died in a similar accident as the four workers," admitted Hung Lao-sheng (洪勞勝), director of the water conservancy agency's fifth river basin management bureau, which manages Pachang Creek.

Hung said the only safety measure is to have somebody upstream watching water conditions. If the water rises rapidly, the lookout is supposed to notify workers downstream.

"It only takes minutes for water to come down the steep creek bed, so it's very important the lookout report danger with precise accuracy," Hung said.

In the accident on Saturday afternoon, eight workers working in the lower riverbed were told to leave ahead of the raging floods. Only four escaped and the other four, who were reportedly required by the contractor to wrap up tools, were unfortunately stuck in the middle of the water and ultimately lost their lives.

Following the accident, prosecutors in Chiayi County have been investigating the liability of related authorities and the contracting company. Prosecutors yesterday interrogated the head of the construction company and the leader of the group of workers for the project.

Ku said that while the contractor may be held liable for his failure to ensure workplace safety, she believes the water conservancy agency should also be held responsible.

"It is not liable under the existing law, because they are not the workers' legal employers. But, I think it has absolute responsibility to make sure the workers work under safe circumstances," Ku said.

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